Monday, July 27, 2009


For the past two months, the majority of the work I’ve done has been organizing a training that will (hopefully) happen in September or October. I’ve got to get much of the work done now, ahead of time, because the grant that I will write for the project will take a while to process. Also, Ramadan is starting on August 22nd and I can’t count on being able to do any work during that month.

Last year three other volunteers and I held a Traditional Birthing Attendant (TBA) workshop. One of the other volunteers took the lead in organizing the training so I was just helping out. But that volunteer is gone, so organizing the training falls on me this year.

The focus of last year’s training was home birthing. But it became apparent as we were planning the training that there is only so much you can teach women during a three-day training. After the training we encountered another problem: just because we had trained these women didn’t mean that everyone in the village then sought them out to help with births.

These two lessons mean that the focus of this year’s training will be slightly different. Maternal and infant health is still the main community health priority so the same basic issues will be heart of the training. In addition to issues directly related to pregnancy and birthing, we will be talking about basic health issues in the home: hygiene, infant diarrhea (which killed two infants about a month ago in my village), and basic first aid. The other important change in the training will be empowering the trainees to spread what they learn during the training to their communities when they return. We will have them role-play scenarios in their communities where they can talk about the lessons of the training. We will also involve other community leaders in the training to assist in this dissemination of information. In terms of preventing maternal and infant mortality during childbirth, it’s easier to affect a change by increasing the number of pre-natal visits to the health clinic than by turning women into certified midwives. The success of the training will be judged by how well the women spread the information in their villages.

I solidified these conclusions in my mind during a meeting with the local doctors who will be running most of the training. We talked about the curriculum and we were in agreement about changing its focus. The new focus of the training means that volunteers will have a greater role in teaching during the training. Last year all the volunteers did was organize things behind the scenes. But this year we will be more involved in the classroom, which means that there will be more preparatory work. The meeting with the doctors was held on Thursday and it involved me running a meeting in French, which is my least favorite foreign language. There is something about the sounds and constructions of French that give my tongue a very difficult time.

Although the meeting in French with the doctors was the most intellectually demanding thing that I’ve done in a while, the other work for this training has been much more physically demanding: recruiting women for the training. The goal is to have two women from each village. Some of the trainees will be returnees from last year’s training and it was easy to recruit them. But the rest are from nearby villages that I am less well connected in. I spent much of my first year here making connections with people in these villages and I am now trying to use these connections.

In a village called L, I am friends with an association president and the moqadem (appointed for life, local Ministry of the Interior figure). I rode my bike 12 kilometers to L one day and told the association president about the project. I asked him to think about what women would be good for the training. I told him I would return in a week and we would go around and talk to the women. I came back in a week and he hadn’t done anything. He called the moqadem to his house and we talked about the project. The moqadem told me that he liked the project, but he had to get permission from the Caid (regional Ministry of Interior figure) before he could do anything: come back the next week. So I came back the following week and the moqadem had two names for me. One was his unmarried, 27 year old daughter (unmarried, kind of young, and well-connected is the ideal candidate). The other was a relative of the association president; she is 59 years old. I don’t like choosing women because they are connected to the people who I know, but I’m dependent on the village leaders that I’m working with to help me find women. Plus, after talking to the women I thought that they would be willing participants in the training.

In a village called T, I am friends with an association president. I walked 10 kilometers to T one day and told the association president about the project. This guy has been asking me for a long time to do a project with him in his village. He gathered another member of his association and they talked about who would be best suited for the project. They called a woman over to the house. She was 90 years old. I told them sorry, but she was too old. So they talked about the kind of woman they were looking for and I think they better understood what I wanted. They called another woman over the house and she was a good candidate. Interested, divorced, 35 years old, talkative. We talked with that woman about who else in the village would be good for the training and so we called another woman to the house, who was accompanied by her husband. We talked for a little while and the husband was unsure about letting his wife leave. I told them to think about it and I would return in a week. When I went back a week later, they told me “no.” I was talking with the association president later and it came out that the husband wanted more money (we pay the trainees a small amount for participating in the training). The association presidents couldn’t think of any more women. They had already found three and T is a very small community, so I told them that the one woman going would be enough.

In a village called T2 (28 km away), I am friends with an association president, who lives in Tounfite (market town). Last year a woman (president’s aunt) came to the training. I asked the president if his aunt would want to go again. He said yes. I told him that there was a spot for another woman and he told me that he could find another good candidate. I trust this guy enough to do the work on his own.

In a village called B, I am friends with a random guy. I rode my bike to the village and told him about the project. I told him to think about it and I would come back in a week. I came back in a week and he hadn’t done anything. He saw a woman working in a nearby field and said, “let’s go talk to her.” Not a good start. We talked to the woman for a while and she was sort of interested. Her young granddaughters were with her and they were trying to persuade her to go. They understood the idea behind the project. The woman told me she had to talk to her husband about it. I told her I would come back in a week. When I came back the next week I found the woman working in the same field. She told me she had not asked her husband. So I went to the woman’s house and talked to the husband about it. Luckily he thought the project was good, but he told me that his wife was the only woman in the household and he could not have her absent for the training. But he like the project so he went with me to the house of the moqadem and we talked about the project some. The moqadem told me he could help me, but that he needed permission from the sheikh or khaliph (Ministry of Interior figures in-between moqadem and caid) first. He told me to have the sheikh or khaliph call him. So I left and found the sheikh a couple days later. The sheikh already new about the project so he was happy to call the moqadem. I went back to B a week later and talked more to the moqadem. He told me that he would have a meeting with the men in the village on Friday morning and I should come Friday afternoon to find out what everyone had decided. When I came back Friday afternoon, nothing had been done, but everyone in the village had heard about the project and had an opinion. The moqadem gathered a few influential men and they made a list of women who they thought would be good. After the meeting, I went with the moqadem to these women’s houses and talked to them about the project. Two were interested, so I signed them up.

There are three other villages that I have recruited from (in addition to the two with women returning from last year). Another memorable recruiting trip involved the diarrhea episode explained in a previous post. That’s the bulk of my work these days. I’m glad to be finished with recruiting because it is exhausting. It’s also frustrating at times when people tell me they will do something and don’t do it. But it’s also quite rewarding because I get positive reactions from the people that I’m working with. People tell me, “Your words are good.” I’ve gotten to know many more people in the course of this work, so that’s nice as well.

One last thing: I like this project a lot because I think it is the most purely “Peace Corps” project that I can think of. I’m working with different community partners (local women, local community leaders, Ministry of Health employees) to address primary health concerns by empowering local women to become community health leaders. I am able to do this project because of the relationships that I have built up and because my language is good enough. And I am able to determine the curriculum for the training because I’ve been here for a year learning about the health concerns of the community.


This past week I’ve been helping my family with their harvest. It’s long, slow, hot work. Barley and wheat are harvested with hand and sickle. I am careful to stretch before and afterwards to prevent my back from getting to tight. Lots of people here have back problems and I’d love to teach people about stretching. The harvest work done here is very marginal. Lots of work done for little reward. A wheat field must be fertilized (which involves transporting mule loads of manure from barn to field), irrigated (using irrigation canals), plowed (two mules and a wooden plow), irrigated again, and then harvested. Once harvested, the work is not finished. Then wheat is threshed; some people use machines and others use a more old-fashioned technique. The wheat is spread out on a flat surface with a pole in the middle. Four mules are attached to the pole and made to walk around in circles on the wheat, breaking off the wheat form the stalk. Then the stamped on wheat is gathered in a pile. On a windy day, people throw the broken up wheat into the air, which slowly separates the useful wheat from the less valuable hay because the wheat is heavier than the hay. Then useless chunks are sifted and separated out by hand. Then, finally, the wheat is taken to a nearby mill and ground. (Then you can make bread, by hand). Like I said, it’s a lot of work for a final product that has low value (although critical to life here). My host family’s product is even more marginal because they have to pay people to help along the way (my host dad is too old to do much of the work). They told me that they spent 650 Dhs (about $90) for last year’s wheat crop. I asked how much it would have cost them just to buy the ground wheat at market: 900 Dhs. So they’re breaking their backs over 250 Dhs ($34). Furthermore, my family has to support a mule in order to make all of this work possible, so that’s an added cost to the price tag of the wheat. Fortunately, my host dad has a pension from previous work that allows them to get by. I wonder if they think about ditching this farm work and living off the pension, but I doubt they would do that. I think that its important for their status in the community to maintain their fields, although it’s countless hours of work to save a couple dollars.

The other news is the my host dad’s sister died. I went to the “wake” and there are a couple of stories from that. People are pretty subdued. Tea and couscous are served, like any other gathering. The fkeih (religious leader) does some readings from the Koran. At one point during the wake, with everyone in the room listening, someone asked me what we say to the family of the deceased in America. I told him we express our condolences and that we say that the deceased is with God. I said that we tell the family that the deceased will not be forgotten. He said, “In Morocco, it’s important to forget the deceased. We say ‘goodbye,’ we forget them, and we don’t talk about them again.” So that was interesting. My host dad was feeling sick during the entire wake and I knew he was looking forward to it ending so he could get home. We had about a 20-minute walk home, so everyone at the host’s house offered for us to sleep there (it was late when the wake finished). He said no and we started walking. As soon as we were out of the village my host dad walked to the side of the road, dropped his drawers, and took a dump. I bring up this story to reinforce what I said in a previous post about the taboo against talking about the bathroom. My 73-year-old host dad held his bowels for several hours in the house of his sister and family rather than ask to use the bathroom. Then took a crap on the side of the road. Unbelievable.

1 comment:

mary ellen newport said...


those people must love you cuz you are mr taboo breaker all over the place